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When Facebook goes down: what’s an inconvenience to some is devastating to others

Web Foundation · November 24, 2021

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When Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were down for roughly six hours last month, what was an inconvenience or meme fodder for some was life-stopping for others.

For hundreds of millions around the world, these platforms ARE the internet. Faced with high data and device costs, many rely on mobile access to zero-rated (subsidised) products like Facebook and WhatsApp to get online. Outages like these mean being cut off from virtually everything.

Citizens in the Philippines were cut off from Covid-19 updates from the government.

Doctors in India struggled to coordinate schedules and share patient scans.

And families in Brazil were for hours disconnected from relatives receiving hospital care.

As more people have come to rely on these platforms for communication, so have more and more small businesses. Last month’s outage spelled disaster for those who earn their primary source of income from these tools.

As Soraia Lima, project manager at Publicis and professor of social networks at University of Sao Paulo, explains:

“Social media and instant messaging services are part of our daily lives. The pandemic even intensified this use, as we depend on them to communicate personally and professionally.”

Here we untangle what happens when a primary portal to connection goes offline — and what can be done in the future to prevent this loss of access.

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First person perspective

What was the outage like for small business owners reliant on Meta products as a chief source of income?

We spoke to shop owners around the world to hear their perspective.

For lots of people in the U.S., the outage merely stopped them from posting food photos on Instagram and instigating mask arguments on Facebook. But it meant something else in the large swaths of the developing world. Here, WhatsApp is more than just “social media”: It’s a public utility.

Alizeh Kohari | via The Atlantic

The outage, in numbers

3.5 billion: More than 3.5 billion people around the world use Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp every month, the company reports (USA Today).

90 percent: 90 percent of 16-to-64-year-olds in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil communicate via WhatsApp (Marketplace).

7.2 percent: Across least developed countries, 1GB of data costs 7.2% of average monthly income (A4AI).

300,000: In Bangladesh, an estimated 300,000 businesses rely exclusively on Facebook for conducting operations (The Daily Star).

50 percent: Kafui Adzah’s restaurant Akosombo Bar in Accra relies on orders made via WhatsApp and Instagram. She says she lost 50% of sales during the outage (BBC).

$500: Bruno Torres, an online salesman for children’s clothes in Brazil, estimated he lost around R$3,000 (US$500) during the outage (The Verge).

Quiz time

If the average US earner paid 7.2% of their income for access, how much would 1GB data cost?

People panicked throughout India… In metro cities where businesses majorly run on apps, it created an impact.

Anil Tiwari, Internet Expert, Lucknow, India | via Slate

Considering the solutions

Beyond the technical failure that led to the outage, two key reasons led to its tremendous impact: 1) the concentration of services in a single company and 2) the huge global footprint and impact of these services.

For years experts have warned that the increasing centralisation of power online among a few players would lead to problems like this. So what might be done about it?

Proponents of web decentralisation argue we need to distribute power online to increase competition and ensure there are fewer points of failure which increase the risk of major disruptions.

There are also some who say Meta needs to be broken up into smaller organisations, among them US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and US Senator Elizabeth Warren. Though others — including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and Meta Vice President Nick Clegg — disagree. As a US-based company, that decision is primarily the consideration of US regulators.

We need to bring down the cost of data to give people more choice. Many people, particularly in the Global South, don’t have unlimited data and so experience the internet through a handful of zero-rated products. Driving down prices so that everyone has affordable meaningful connectivity would enable people to use the full web, give them access to more services and minimise the impact when a service goes down.  

For the same reason, initiatives to enable those on low-incomes to get online should provide access to the entire webnot just a limited selection of sites.    

Digital skills are key. Many of the business owners we spoke to said they relied on Facebook products because they’re easy to use, but would like to set up their own websites. Investing in digital skills and embedding training in school curricula can help more people to build online and create a more dynamic, less centralised web.

I mean, it was apocalyptic in Latin America. Every newspaper headline was screaming about this WhatsApp outage, and it seemed like it was bringing the economy to a stop.

Benjamin Gedan, Deputy Director, Latin American Program, Wilson Center | via Marketplace 

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